THE MISSING PEACE
Protest against gold mining for the mine in Stratoni, Halkidiki.
be running out, in a ‘peak oil’-style scenario. They were wrong. Now that the easy stuff has been extracted, industry, like a desperate addict, is switching its attention to fuel that is harder to get at.
‘Extreme energy’ is a relatively recent term for unconventional types of fossil fuel extraction projects, including tar sands, fracking for gas or oil, deep water oil drilling, mountaintop removal for coal, and underground coal gasification. Its sister term ‘extreme extraction’ can equally be applied to increasingly environmentally destructive mining projects, a good example being the massive gold mine on the site of an oldgrowth forest in the Halkidiki region of northern Greece.
Factors common to many extreme energy projects include: • The economics are sometimes marginal. Some tar sands and deep water oil projects are on hold due to the ongoing weak oil price. • They require more input energy to extract than their conventional counterparts, leading down a cul de sac of diminishing energy returns. For oil extraction, the return on energy invested has traditionally been about 20:1, while for the Canadian tar sands it is roughly 4:1. • Environmental damage is greater, and the environmental risks in a worst-case scenario are huge. The tar sands are an industrial dystopia on a spectacular scale, covering about 800 square kilometres of former boreal forest. Close to home, in October 2016 BP abandoned plans to drill in the pristine deep waters of the Great Australian Bight following strong protests. • Social impacts are multiplied, whether they involve blasting near a 10-billionlitre coal slurry dam located above the Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia, or coal seam gas wells emitting toxic hydrocarbon gases 200 metres from the closest dwellings at the Spring Farm estate on the southwestern fringes of Sydney. Environmental harm comes with the territory when developing or running fossil fuel projects. There have been huge oil spills from tankers such as the Exxon Valdez, and from deep-sea oil wells such as the BP Deepwater Horizon. Mine dams, including the one run by a fifty per cent Bhp-owned company in Brazil, have burst or overflowed, sending vast quantities of toxic water downstream and, in some cases, killing many fish.
In the US, pipeline spills are a daily occurrence, together with frequent explosions, and occasional oil train fires that are so hot that it is necessary to wait for them to eventually burn out. Existing regulation has limited effectiveness given that it is cheaper for the corporate players to just pay fines and damages than go to the steep expense of having a rigorous preventative maintenance program in place.
Australia is not immune from similar events; a risky underground coal gasification project contaminated up to 320 square kilometres of South East Queensland agricultural land, leading to a state ban. Following an accident in 2009, the Montara wellhead leaked oil into the Timor Sea for 74 days, creating a slick. In 2013, Santos reported that a coal seam gas holding pond had contaminated an aquifer in the Pilliga